BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- As Tom Brady showed in one episode of the “Tom vs. Time” documentary series, he keeps detailed notes from each of his 18 seasons with the New England Patriots, and countless binders fill the shelves in his office. So when Brady makes a historical Patriots reference when discussing a teammate, like he did with receiver Brandin Cooks this week, he doesn't make it lightly.
“What he’s done for our team, in one year, is really incredible. I haven’t seen it very much from anybody to come in and make the kind of contributions he’s made,” Brady said of Cooks, who finished the regular season with 65 receptions for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. “He does it in his own style, too. He’s not trying to mimic anybody.”
In Brady’s 16 seasons as a starter, only two Patriots receivers had more production than Cooks has in a first season with the team: Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist Randy Moss and Wes Welker, both in 2007.
This is precisely what the Patriots envisioned when they acquired the 24-year-old Cooks from the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a first-round draft choice in March.
“Brandin Cooks has been an incredible player for us since he got here,” Brady said. “His attitude. His approach to the game. For a young player, his maturity is really what struck me. He’s one of the last guys off the field every single day, always working on his catching techniques, tracking the ball. It’s just so impressive.
“I love playing with the guy. I love his spirit. I love his attitude. I love his will and determination. I love his leadership. Very lucky to play with him, and hopefully we have many more years together.”
Had things turned out differently, Brady might have been looking at Cooks on the opposite sideline in Super Bowl LII because the Philadelphia Eagles were a top suitor to acquire him, as were the Tennessee Titans.
Then again, the Patriots might not have advanced to this point without Cooks. With No. 2 receiver Chris Hogan missing seven games with a shoulder injury, the Patriots relied heavily on Cooks’ availability and consistency. He has played 92.7 percent of the offensive snaps and-- coach Bill Belichick has made sure to note -- has not missed a practice all season.
Cooks said this week his 100-yard receiving game in the AFC Championship Game was validation for the high price the Patriots paid to acquire him, while adding, “I just try to come in there and work hard every day and do my job the best way I can, so they never regret that decision. ... I don’t feel like I’ve arrived. That’s my mindset. I feel like there’s a lot more than can be done, and that’s what I’m pressing to do.”
Such an approach has helped Cooks -- who will have his mother, Andrea, his fiancée, Bri, and his brothers, Fred, Worth and Andre, in attendance at the Super Bowl -- earn respect throughout the locker room.
“The day he stepped in, you knew he was going to bring an unbelievable work ethic," wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea said. "He’s worked so extremely hard for us. He’s very intelligent. He has great traits. He has very strong character. He’s a guy who is very detailed, a perfectionist. He strives for excellence.
“The combination of all those strong traits provided him an opportunity to really succeed in this offense. I know this offense is one that requires our receivers to be detailed, dependable, in the right place at the right time, in very specific roles for them. That’s been one [thing] he does very well.”
In doing so, Cooks has earned Brady’s trust, which goes back to the foundation they built in spring practices, sometimes staying on the field well after practice to spend extra time with each other. Things have grown between them gradually, and when they walked through the door of the team’s indoor practice facility together last week, it was a reminder of how that connection has evolved.
Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks walk off the field together after spending some extra time working after practice. pic.twitter.com/ckiKFKwy2K— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) June 8, 2017
The Tom Brady/Brandin Cooks connection is in focus as they arrive at Friday's walkthrough together. pic.twitter.com/0n7olimVz6— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 26, 2018
“I would have to say, throughout the offseason workouts and training and whatnot, we started off not knowing each other well, and throughout the season, we kept building that rapport,” said Cooks, who had developed something similar with Drew Brees in New Orleans from 2014-2016. “I still think there is a lot more room to grow together.”
Cooks is 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds, and though his speed is well-documented, there are a lot of fast receivers in the NFL. It has been Cooks' ability to track the ball down the field that has made an impression.
“He’s definitely put us in positions to make plays down the field and really, for a guy who is not 6-foot-5 and a bigger wide receiver, he’s really done a great job of making some of these contested catches tracking the ball down the field,” O’Shea said.
At the same time, Belichick noted Cooks has made plays on intermediate routes and catch-and-run plays, as “he’s smart and does a lot of things well.” If there has been a knock on his game, it’s that he has had some drops.
Overall, Cooks is tough on himself, saying, “It’s an OK season. If it was a great season, there would be more production. I have to be better, in all aspects of my game.”
That’s setting a high standard, especially considering that Brady said Cooks has done something few receivers have in his 16 seasons as the team’s starting quarterback.
Said Cooks, “I came in, just stuck to who I was, trusted the process, and now here we are.”
In the Super Bowl.
It probably doesn’t happen without him.